Women’s Ministries director calls for new global women’s conference

She said she doesn’t want to allow the continuing backlash to the legendarily controversial Re-Imagining God conference of 1993 to continue silencing feminist theologians in the denomination.

That conference, which marked the mid-point of the World Council of Churches’ “Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women,” generated intense debate within the church after $30,000 in Bicentennial Fund money was used to help defray the expenses of women theologians attending it.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was the only Re-Imagining sponsor to fire a staff person as a result of the controversy.

“Re-Imagining was a turning point for women in the church, a flash point,” Smith told the Presbyterian News Service in an interview after speaking to women ministers at an event preceding the annual Montreat Women’s Conference. “My goal is not to create another flash point, but to give women an opportunity to come together as women theologians around the world Š to (contribute to) the wisdom of the larger church.”

Following the 1993 event, spokespeople from the right — led by the Presbyterian Layman — objected that a Re-Imagining speaker had questioned the historic interpretation of at least one of the church’s fundamental doctrines, the atonement; and expressed revulsion at liturgies that celebrated the sexuality of women. Probably the most provocative aspect of the conference was its repeated use in prayer of the ancient name of “Sophia” to describe the wisdom of God. Critics alleged that the women had been praying to a pagan goddess — a charge conference organizers vehemently denied.

Smith, who attended the Re-Imagining conference, said the silence that ensued in its aftermath was terrible. Although she didn’t agree with every speaker, she said, the sensationalized coverage of it was erroneous: “I was there, and what was reported was not what I experienced,” she said. Smith, who was then a member of the General Assembly Council (GAC), recalled former General Assembly moderator Freda Gardner’s comments to the GAC. In Smith’s paraphrase, Gardner said: “I’m sixty-something. I’m a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. And you still don’t believe I can think for myself.”

That kind of (silencing), Smith said, was a slap in every Presbyterian woman’s face. “And I don’t think we deserve that.”

Wants program area to be heard

What does Smith want now for the Women’s Ministries Program Area?

“I want them to be on the map,” she told the Presbyterian News Service. “… I want to make a place (where their) voice carries weight and has influence. I want their voice to be heard for the good it brings, and as a challenge to our weaknesses. I want them to be treated with a sense of equity.”

Problems have plagued the women’s program area at least since the reunion of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983, when some constituent groups which relate to the women’s program area grew uncomfortable with advocacy work that was built into the unit’s structure.

Smith said she intends to be a reconciling agent, for the program area and for the entire church, which is deeply split on issues running the gamut from what is appropriate sexual expression for faithful people to unease with a term like “feminist theology.”

“I’d love to build a bridge” between such polarized groups as Voices of Sophia, a liberal caucus that coalesced in defense of Re-Imagining, and Voices of Orthodox Women, a conservative group that supports traditional interpretations of doctrine, Smith said.

But even she admits that dialogue may not be possible between women who disagree so vehemently simply because it is hard to sit down together and authentically listen.

After listening to women ministers at the preaching pre-conference talk about loneliness in rural parishes, the rejection of inclusive language and other problems of women in ministry, Smith reaffirmed her support for “advocacy for women in ministry in any form” — lay or ministers.

For now, she said, she is seeking suggestions from ministers and lay women across the denomination as to how the program area can tackle the racism and sexism that plague American society and many American churches.

Find the courage to take a stand

Smith was the final speaker at the recent Horizons’ Bible study conference at Montreat, whose theme was “Come to the Festival: Esther’s Message for Such a Time as This,” and her message was informed by her commitment to feminism. She told about 250 listeners that they — like the Old Testament women whose lives they had been studying — do have power.

“Vashti stood her ground; she found her voice and the power to stand up to the king,” Smith said. “Esther took power into her own hands to free her people. And we, too, have power. “We often feel we have no voice,” she continued. “… But we have to find the courage to stand and face the acknowledged power of the king.”

Smith admits that how and where to make that stand can be a tough call.

Vashti, after all, was the queen who simply told the king, “no,” and refused his invitation to appear at a drunken brawl wearing only her crown, at least that is how some rabbis interpret the reference. The punishment for her defiance was banishment, a penalty about which the text is clear. Another result was the issuance of a royal order specifying that men were the legal heads of households in Persia.

Esther, on the other hand, worked quietly, inside the system, to subvert the evil that was being done in her time — when men were hoarding wealth, planning a pogrom to eliminate the empire’s minority Jewish population, and working to legalize the suppression of women (partly in response to the Vashti fiasco).

Smith said the parallels with today are all too real.

“The result of using your power always carries with it a risk,” she pointed out. “We are called to use our power with wisdom … and to encourage and support one another.”

She said there is nothing inherently bad in feminist theology, no matter what its critics might believe.

“Feminist theology is within the Reformed tradition, which is not [set] in stone,” she said. “We’re ‘reformed yet always being reformed.’ Feminist theology falls within the Reformed tradition. … It brings to it another perspective that needs to be heard.”

Smith said she is still formulating a vision for the Women’s Program Area. “I’m called to be here and be faithful to where God leads,” she said. “I want to be a good listener, to not threaten by my presence either group. Yet I want to stand firm so that women may have a voice (and an opportunity to use) our gifted minds.

“The church needs us to be among its leaders as well as its doers.”

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